Rather than hiding behind the horses, puppeteers maneuver the creatures onstage.
War Horse, the Broadway sensation about a boy's devotion to his horse, set against the horrors of World War I trench warfare, gallops through Overture Center June 10-15. The finale to Overture's 2013-14 season, the production is an unlikely combination of a children's book, original music based on English folksongs, hand-drawn sets and large-scale puppets that resemble life-size horses.
After successful runs in London, New York and Toronto, War Horse comes to Madison on the last leg of its American tour, much to the delight of Overture's programming directors.
"It's been on our radar since it was on Broadway," says Robert Chappell, Overture's communications director. "There's been a great deal of buzz."
That buzz began in the Madison area more than a year ago. According to Chappell, there was an audible gasp when guests at Overture's 2013 season-announcement event saw War Horse appear on the list of productions coming to the venue. Attendees also got to meet one of the show's stars, a horse named Joey. Excitement from the event spread throughout the community quickly. Area audiences have already responded to the offering enthusiastically, so much that Chappell credits it with pushing season ticket sales past Overture's goals.
"War Horse combines creative staging and innovative use of relatively few set pieces," he says. "It's easy to be fascinated with the machinery of the puppets at first. They aren't designed to look realistic; you can see the actors manipulating them. But by the end of the show, you believe that these animals have come to life."
The story of love, lost innocence and the brutality of war has traveled a great distance from the imagination of British children's author Michael Morpurgo. Similar to the multimedia phenomenon Les MisÃ©rables, War Horse has found audiences through the original novel, an award-winning play and a recent movie.
When Morpurgo's young adult novel War Horse was published in 1982, it gained little attention from critics or its intended audience, so he simply kept writing. The former schoolteacher now has about 120 titles to his name, many of which pair youthful protagonists with animals. These friendships are used to illustrate the values of loyalty and perseverance, as well as the determination needed to overcome adversity. Quite a few are also unabashed arguments for pacifism.
Morpurgo was initially inspired to write War Horse after a series of conversations with elderly World War I veterans he met in Iddesleigh, the village where he lives. The former cavalry soldiers described fighting devastating battles as teenagers, in the trenches in France. They confided their fears and homesickness only to their horses.
Intrigued, the author learned that the British army had drafted approximately 2 million horses into service in World War I, not only to carry troops into battle but also to pull equipment, ambulances and supplies. Of that number, only 65,000 returned to England at the end of the war. The balance were killed in battle, died of exhaustion and deprivation, or were sold to French butchers to be slaughtered for meat.
Morpurgo was further moved to write Joey's story after witnessing the present-day bond between a horse and a young man with severe speech problems. The youth had been invited to come to the country to experience rural farm life, complete with horses and other animals. After years of silence, one evening the boy started talking to his horse.
"I listened to this boy telling the horse everything he'd done on the farm that day," Morpurgo recalls. "I suddenly had the idea that of course the horse didn't understand every word, but that she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child."
Using a horse as the central character, the author began to formulate a story about World War I that was not told from any political or national perspective. Instead it focused on the harrowing journey of an unwitting participant and the boy who vows to plunge into the war to be reunited with the animal.
In 2007 the artistic leaders of London's National Theatre were looking for an unorthodox holiday show. Tom Morris, the company's assistant director, was assigned to find a vehicle for South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, whose inventive animal creations had piqued the theater's interest.
After reading Morpurgo's book, Morris contacted Handspring to discuss translating War Horse into a hyper-theatrical stage show.
"We went into the studio for a week with a writer, a few story ideas, a few actors and some bits of cardboard," he recalls.
After two years in development, the play opened in London to critical acclaim. It became a huge hit with audiences as well.
Handspring provided the linchpin for the theatrical production: breathing, galloping, whinnying horses with bodies built of steel, leather and aircraft cables. But when first approached with the idea of creating puppets sturdy enough to ride and intricate enough to convey realistic movements of the ears and tail, artistic director Adrian Kohler and executive producer Basil Jones were not sure it could be done. They had previously created puppet versions of hyenas, monkeys and giraffes, but none of them had the structural demands of the horses. As they set about solving problems, such as how to make the horses' gait look convincing, they knew they needed to create puppets that were safe for the puppeteers to operate.
Ultimately Kohler and Jones worked with the National Theatre team to design and construct life-size horse puppets controlled by three actors: two to operate the legs and one to control the head and neck, with all three providing sound effects. It was a long process of tests, design refinements, and trial and error.
"The puppets are what make the show unique, but they're not the only thing that makes people want to see War Horse," Morris says. "It's the heart of Michael Morpurgo's story that people connect to. The kind of comfort humans sometimes find in the company of animals, and the love that holds the boy and horse together. The audience makes a big investment in the possibility they might find each other in the second half. If that doesn't work, then no amount of puppetry will rescue the show. You absolutely need both."
According to Vanity Fair, Steven Spielberg was urged to see the National Theatre's production of War Horse in London in 2009. Reportedly moved to tears, he wasted no time in delving deeper into the story, meeting the play's cast, researching the time period at the Imperial War Museum in London, and acquiring the film rights.
Although Spielberg had directed six movies set during World War II, including Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, he had never been interested in showcasing a story from World War I. The director stated that the "heart" of the story and its international appeal drew him to the project.
Within six months of his initial inquiries, Spielberg started shooting the film on location in England, with a cast that included Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Watson, Jeremy Irvine and hundreds of horses: real, animatronic and those produced through computer animation.
Released in December 2011, the film received generally good reviews and six Academy Award nominations, but it posted lackluster numbers at the box office.
So did the film boost local interest in the stage production? It's hard to say. Overture's Chappell notes that the movie is realistic while the play is very impressionistic.
"Each can be enjoyed on its own merits," he says.
The touring show
Actor Nick LaMedica has not seen the movie version of War Horse. He's been too busy touring with the theatrical production for almost two years, as one of three performers who portray Joey as a foal.
"I never considered puppetry an art form until I had this experience," he says.
His perception of puppetry changed when he met Handspring's Jones and Kohler.
"I had been standing in line for three days, waiting to audition for the War Horse tour in New York City," he recalls. "Finally I was sent in to read for the human roles. And then I got called back."
Over the next four months, he continued to audition, hoping to be offered one of the main roles. One day, after he finished reading, he was asked to attend a puppetry workshop.
"I didn't have any experience in that area. I thought I was done," he admits.
But after impressing the puppetry directors and choreographers with his movement work and patience when learning to manipulate the horses, LaMedica was cast as a puppeteer.
"Some of us come from dance, theater, martial arts, gymnastics, tumbling training; some have puppetry experience; some of us are still learning as we go," he says of the show's puppeteers.
The new puppeteers spent 100 hours training in "puppet boot camp," working closely with Handspring artists before the "human" actors joined the process.
"When we were in rehearsal, War Horse was still running on Broadway," LaMedica explains, "so when we were done for the day, the tour cast would go see our colleagues at Lincoln Center to steal, share, talk and work with them."
After eight weeks of rehearsal, three weeks of tech and three weeks of previews, the touring company opened its first show in Los Angeles in 2012.
One of the biggest challenges is that the puppeteers can't speak to each other while performing. Each is equipped with a very sensitive microphone so audiences can hear the horse's every whinny. That makes it impossible to discreetly whisper stage directions.
"Over time, you develop a feel for the performance. You listen with your eyes, with all your senses," LaMedica says. "You have to anticipate the needs, desires and impulses of the other puppeteers; you all work together to tell one character's story."
Each puppeteer specializes in a position within the horse team -- the head, heart or hind -- but they rotate roles often to give actors with the most physically demanding parts a chance to rest. This also lets the performers play the same character from three distinct vantage points.
Unlike puppet shows many people remember from childhood, Handspring productions don't hide the puppeteers from the audience. Instead they're completely visible underneath and beside the puppets, dressed in period-appropriate costumes. But LaMedica insists that "the puppeteers just disappear" when you're watching the show.
He also gives credit to the story itself.
"[War Horse] is a love story, a story of a boy and his horse, showing devotion, showing courage in the face of tragedy.... That's what really speaks to people. And for me, it's constantly exciting, even after 700 performances."